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Post-secondary student groups unimpressed with provincial budget

Groups representing post-secondary students in Alberta are expressing frustration at this year’s provincial budget. They say it does nothing to help students cope with a severe affordability crisis and may push many of them out of school.

Tala Abu Hayyaneh, the vice-president academic of the Students’ Association of Mount Royal University, says the list of things contributing to the unaffordability of a college or university education is a long one, including all-time high housing costs, food, textbooks, tuition fees, student loan debt, and the difficulty of finding part-time or summer employment.

“Students are facing a lot of challenges and the budget did not address those concerns,” Abu Hayyaneh told CBC News.

“Students are having to make a choice between their meals or their textbooks.”

Naju Syed, the vice-chair of the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS), agrees. She says at her school — Athabasca University — there’s been a 300 per cent increase in food bank use.

“I think our biggest concern is when post-secondary education just flat-out becomes unaffordable for students and students are no longer choosing to go this route,” said Syed.

In a news release, the Students’ Union at the University of Calgary described the budget as “an indirect cut on a post-secondary education system already on life support.”

According to the release, the provincial government has cut per-capita post-secondary funding by 7.3 percent.

“The real risk … is that Alberta is going to be leaving talent on the table. Without proper funding for post-secondary education, fewer courses are available for students, which delays graduation and turns away countless talented, prospective students,” the release says.

When asked to respond to the concerns being raised by the student groups, a spokesperson for the minister of advanced education said in a statement to CBC News that the province understands the affordability crisis affecting many Albertans, including students who are struggling with the cost of living.

The East Gate entrance at Mount Royal University.
Tala Abu Hayyaneh, the vice-president academic of the Students’ Association of Mount Royal University, says the tuition cap included in the budget does give students a bit of hope, ‘but students did not get what they really needed out of the budget.’ (CBC)

Mackenzie Blyth said that’s why the government capped tuition increases for domestic students at two per cent at most public post-secondary institutions starting in the 2024/2025 academic year, reduced the interest rate on Alberta student loans, extended the payment and interest-free grace period for loans to 12 months after a student completes their studies, and increased the eligibility for the Repayment Assistance Plan to make student loan repayment more manageable.

Abu Hayyaneh said the tuition cap does give students a bit of hope, “but students did not get what they really needed out of the budget.”

The province has increased the amount of loans available, she said, but the amount of grants, which don’t require repayment, has been reduced.

“Grants are the lifeline of a lot of students.”

Syed at CAUS also points to the lack of new grant money as a major concern.

“The student loan program saw an increase … but we really wanted to see that increase within student grants, which better offset the cost of rising tuition for students,” she said.

“I think in general we felt pretty underwhelmed with this budget.”

Abu Hayyaneh says that financial pressures mean students don’t perform as well in their studies. They can also lead to more mental health issues and cause some to contemplate leaving university because of the costs involved.

“Right now, in Alberta, I would say it’s not a good time to be a student,” she said.

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